Shatter: Volume 1 (First Comics)

-Review by Paul Ewbank-

shatter

The world of comic books is a fascinating mess of countless franchises and publishers, twisted, recycling continuities, obscure masterpieces and bizarre detours. Throughout its history comic writers and artists have often experimented with their medium in all kinds of ways, from developing new artistic techniques to twisting old conventions into something new. This constant hunger for something fresh and exciting has produced some really interesting titles, and one such obscure little gem is the First Comics sci-fi series Shatter.

Released back in 1985 when computers as we know them were just becoming a thing, Shatter now advertises itself as the revolutionary first and only comic to be drawn entirely by computer. Made on an Apple Mac 3 on some early equivalent of Microsoft Paint, Shatter was drawn and coloured entirely digitally, with minor tweaks done by hand afterwards. I didn’t know this at the time I read Shatter but this is basically the reverse of how the process works now; today you still draw comics by hand and then scan them in to colour and edit them digitally. So apparently the entirely digital technique didn’t catch on, meaning that instead of being the first shot in a digital comic book revolution, Shatter is more like an interesting foot note in the history of the medium- a brave experiment that turned a few heads but ultimately didn’t lead to much.

Whilst its story, following cop-for-hire Jack Scratch AKA Shatter’s attempts to track down a serial killer and getting caught up in an underground cult, is perfectly serviceable, the artwork in the only reason to own Shatter. I’d be hard pressed to call it good, but its definitely unique and fascinating in its own way. Ever play one of those really old games for the NES or Sega Master System? (Or a port/ROM of one?) Know how they sometimes have those really grainy pre-rendered images as part of the introduction or to mark important events? Well volume 1 of Shatter is 180+ pages of that. 11 instalments or “downloads” of extremely pixelated images with odd, disjointed colouring and block colour backgrounds. It’s extremely arresting, and creators Michael Saenz and Peter Gillis have done a pretty amazing job of making it into a workable comic. It can be a bit hard to tell who is who, and some of the intricacies of facial expressions are lost, but other than that its been handled surprisingly well. By today’s standards it is of course very primitive and even ugly at times, but the 8-bit look has a real charm to it and gives Shatter a look and feel unlike anything else.

Not black and white in the actual comic, but images of the artwork were pretty hard to find.
Not black and white in the actual comic, but images of the artwork were pretty hard to find.

The grainy, washed out digital look of the comic also fits nicely with the Cyberpunk setting and story. A near future noir-detective story with a loner anti-hero complete with scheming corporations, bizarre fashion and devious femme fatales, as far as concept goes Shatter is a competent but uninspired rehash of Blade Runner, which at the time was only 3 years old and not yet recognised as the touchstone its viewed as today. The graphics of the comic complement the grimy future urban setting well, and it almost looks like you’re viewing the action through a low-resolution security camera or something. And whilst the story doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, its well executed and has some cool elements. The central idea of being able to extract RNA and use it to sell talents and abilities is a suitably trashy, very Cyberpunk idea, and the writers take it in some unexpected directions. Throughout the arc collected in this first volume there are at least two genuinely surprising twists, and the obviously derivative setting and plot felt pleasantly familiar rather than stale or boring. Ironically, if it had been done with a conventional art style Shatter probably wouldn’t have been interesting enough to still warrant reading 30 years later, but as it is, the comic reads like an artefact from a different era- a relic from a potential world of stories that never happened.

In his introduction Peter Gillis mentions that he and Saenz came under fire for using a computer to draw their book, and justifies the decision by saying they saw in the Apple Mac the potential to remove the boundary between the image in your head and the image you manage to get down on paper. Tweaking colour, resizing, rewriting dialogue, moving things around, all could be done with the click of a mouse instead of taking hours. Whatever other artists thought at the time, I believe it was a noble and brave thing to try and move their medium forward, and the fact that the results didn’t exactly set the world on fire do not diminish that. If no one tries anything new then a genre stagnates, so a few misfires in the name of progress are to be expected, and when they’re as fascinating to look back on as Shatter, you can’t really complain. And hey, computers are an essential part of the comic book process today. Would today’s artists have thought to try it if not for the existence of old titles like this? They probably would, but someone had to be the first to try it, and whilst Shatter might not be the greatest of technical accomplishments, as a minor piece of art history and as an entertaining story, you could do worse.

 

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